Is a “critical” area studies possible?

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27 Scopus citations


At a time when nearly every topic seems to be labeled “critical” in geography, this essay asks why the discipline has lacked a clear commitment to advancing a “critical area studies” agenda. The term “critical” can take many meanings but, I argue, it has generally been an important way to “other” geography’s past, including the encyclopedism of old-fashioned regional studies. With roots in the late 1980s, the idea of joining critical theory and area studies was initially challenged by questions of representation, which are inherent in area studies scholarship. Placing power at the center of their studies, and highly conscious of their own positionality, critical geographers have lacked a coherent approach to the political and ethical issues of representation. Another difficulty lies with critical geography’s general skepticism about engaging the “policy community”, which, especially in the US, tends to be imagined as an uncritical “other”. Given the discipline’s cyclical anxieties about policy relevance that typically surface when funding programs are subject to cuts, this has largely resulted in US geographers speaking past these audiences. With respect to both of these othering practices, I suggest that a critical area studies project would benefit from a more positive framing, stressing “deep listening” in empirically informed work, and actively imagining what a critical policy community might look like.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)807-814
Number of pages8
JournalEnvironment and Planning D: Society and Space
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1 2016


  • Area studies
  • critical geography
  • politics of relevance
  • region

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)


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